CQ Researcher Report: Are Mandatory Sentences Too Harsh?

Post Date: January 14, 2014

(Congressional Quarterly Researcher) — A rash of federal and state laws in the 1980s and ’90s — an era of crack cocaine-fueled violence and “tough-on-crime” rhetoric — introduced lengthy automatic prison sentences. In the laws’ wake, many low-level nonviolent drug offenders have been locked up for long periods, contributing to prison overcrowding and state budget deficits. Putting young people behind bars for the majority of their lives as punishment for a youthful error is inhumane, human rights and civil liberties groups say. At least 30 states have rolled back their harshest laws, and several bipartisan proposals in Congress would relax federal sentencing mandates. Prosecutors contend the threat of mandatory sentences induces defendants to cooperate with their investigations of criminal networks and reduces crime. But reformers, including some prominent conservatives, contend drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration are cheaper than prison and more effective at reducing crime. States such as Texas and New York have closed prisons and still boast declining crime, but key congressional Republicans are skeptical of sentencing reform. Read more